There are many European projects and loans granted that aim to improve the environmental situation, health outcomes and living conditions of the Lebanese people. However, a great number of these companies become embroiled in Lebanese corruption. The Danish company BWSC, which won the bid to construct reciprocating engines in Zouk and Jiyeh power plants in 2013 is one of the most notable examples. Following a suspension of the project due to non-compliance with the terms of the bid and political tensions between the Lebanese Ministry of Energy and the Ministry of Finance, the project was finished in 2017. Yet, the consequences of the project continue to have an effect. The Danish company filed an arbitration case against the Lebanese state for over $130 million in 2018 due to delays in the payments.
The problem goes beyond allegations of corruption, which were covered in the first episode of this investigation. The project is also causing irreparable environmental harm by falling short of environmental obligations and international standards set by the International Finance Corporation (IFC). The situation is severe: Jounieh was identified by Greenpeace’s 2018 report as the fifth most air polluted region in the Arab world, with the Zouk power plant cited as one of the main reasons for this.
Despite the Lebanese Ministry of Energy and Water receiving a loan from Denmark’s Export Credit Agency (EFK) in 2014 which covered 85% of the project, no one in Lebanon has benefited from these plants. On the contrary, the residents of Zouk Mikael claim that the smoke from the new plant directly affects them, due to shorter and more harmful smokestacks. Forty-year-old Fadi Abu Khalil took the Investigations team up on his roof, facing the smokestacks. He showed us the severity of the situation and his dire living conditions due to his proximity to the smokestacks. His walls and floors were stained with yellow spots from the particulate matter emitted. If he were to hang his clothes outdoors, they would be eaten away – just like the seedlings and plants he tries to grow. Faced with this reality, he set up an enclosed tent over his roof to be able to plant inside. “This is only a small example of what happens to nature because of this pollution, so imagine what happens to people!” he said, and emphasized that “over the past 20 years, the electricity situation has not changed for us or for anyone else in Lebanon, so I don’t know what actual value they have added.”
Conversely, the power supply today has worsened. Forty-year-old Maroun Abu Khalil, who owns a garage near the Zouk plant, comments on two key points: “The power plants were running on fuel and were supposed to be developed to run on natural gas, but they kept using fuel for their own interests…We weren’t greatly affected by the long smokestacks, but now we’re more affected by the short smokestacks because they are closer to us. Moreover, there were only 2 of them before, now there are 11! They did not benefit us, they caused us more trouble.”
The situation is not any better in Jiyeh. Sixty-year old Ismail Abu Melhem, a shoe vendor who operates near the plant, has been living with cancer for six years and suffers from breathing difficulties following the collapse of his left lung. “The area here is full of cancer and poison… Poison with no electricity… It’s all for nothing.” His treatment is costly, especially in the current economic situation: “we’re left here and no one cares about us… Our situation is tough.”
Danish engineer and environmental expert Kare Press-Kristensen told the investigation team that he was “shocked that the Danish party supported power plants running on heavy fuel oil, one of the most polluting types of fuel worldwide. We should not, in any event, do this. We must support green energy, such as wind turbines and solar panels. We should be known worldwide for energy technologies which solve environmental and climate problems, not for fossil fuels which create environmental and climate problems.”
The Ministry did not receive licenses from the concerned municipalities, and according to the mayors of both municipalities, they weren’t even contacted regarding any environmental impact study, that should usually be conducted prior to any such project, so they had no idea whether these studies were actually conducted, and if so, how did this happen without at least informing the municipalities?
According to Zouk Mikael’s Head of Municipality, Elias Beaino, they were promised electricity in the area, given that the plant is on the municipality’s grounds, and were also promised that the electricity would be generated by natural gas. “We were surprised to find the plant running on fuel oil,” he said.
Responding to the Investigations team’s questions, EKF said that the “power plants co-funded by EKF are working as intended and generating stable electricity with relatively less pollution than before, as many households are provided with electricity, and thus there is a decrease in generators in the area. What Lebanon’s power situation looks like today is out of EKG’s hands and may be attributed to numerous factors. At EKF, when we contribute to project funding, our starting point is the actual situation at the time of the funding. The current situation was non-existent in Lebanon at the time. Nonetheless, the current power challenge in Lebanon does not diminish the need for newer, more modern power plants.”
Environmental and Health Impact
Jounieh was identified as the most polluted city in Lebanon by Greenpeace’s 2018 report, which also ranked it the fifth most air polluted region in the Arab world – and 23rd globally. This was mainly attributed to the Zouk power plant and the highway which runs next to it. The organization’s 2020 report found that Lebanon has the highest premature death rate in the region due to high levels of air pollution.
Burning heavy fuel in power plants and unfiltered generators has led to record levels of nitrogen oxides (NOx) in the air. NO₂ causes plenty of respiratory diseases, according to Dr Najat Saliba, who explained to the Investigations team in an interview that the “black smoke you usually see when turning on engines contains benzo(a)pyrene (BaP) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. This black smoke is what builds up in the lungs, as well as NO₂. Chemical analyses [in the study she carried out with others] show that the amount of carcinogens in this black smoke is extremely high, even higher than in other areas of the country, even compared to high-traffic areas such as Daora. Carcinogens are much higher in Zouk because of the engines,” which is shown in the satellite images used by Greenpeace in its report (particularly nitrogen dioxide).
In 2017 and 2019, the Zouk power plant exceeded the international limit imposed by the IFC of NOx, (2000 mg/Nm3) according to the two studies conducted by MVV Decon, a German consultancy, to monitor emissions – were obtained by the Investigations team under Denmark’s right to access information. A representative from EKF responded: Usually, NOx emissions should be limited to less than 2000, but since the projects are based in an area that is already considered highly polluted, NOx emissions should be limited to 400 mg/Nm3 for compliance due to the deteriorating air quality. Unfortunately, the concerned power plants in Lebanon failed to comply with the maximum limit at that time, and EKF worked relentlessly with the project to decrease the numbers… EKF stopped monitoring this specific project in 2019, when the last loan installment was paid. But due to the expected transition from fuel to natural gas, in addition to the expected decline in using local diesel generators, it is expected that the overall NOx emissions in the area decline over time. In an interview with the Investigations team, engineer and environmental expert Kare Press-Kristensen explained that the “sulfur dioxide emissions and particles should be decreased by half and the nitrogen oxide should be 10 times less than it was in 2019.” Surprised, he said “I can’t understand at all how EKF could engage in a project that doesn’t at least include efficient smokestacks scrubbers,” and expressed doubt over whether EKF had even attempted to work in line with the Paris Agreement or the UN SDGs.
In this context, Greenpeace MENA’s Program Director Julien Jriessati told the Investigative team: “We’re used to Egypt being a highly polluted country when it comes to air pollution, but we are increasingly noticing that Lebanon is right up there with Egypt, this was surprising to us… We’re talking about the 23rd in the world and the fifth in the MENA region, and by looking at the satellite images, we can see that a big part of the problem was concentrated above the Zouk power plant.” He indicated that according to the organization’s estimations, approximately 2000 people died due to air pollution in the country in 2018 – amounting to 4 per 10,000 people. According to Jriessati, this was ranked the highest in the region, and he also pointed out that the financial loss caused by air pollution is estimated at around $1.4 billion a year in Lebanon – amounting to around 2% of the country’s GDP.
A 1990’s study by pulmonologist Dr Paul Makhlouf and others demonstrated the significant health impact (specifically on the lungs) of the Zouk plant’s smoke and waste on the residents. The impacts are especially staggering when compared with those of neighboring areas, like Aamchit, in terms of the percentages of pulmonary diseases (e.g. asthma, acute exacerbations of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and even pulmonary cancers). Makhlouf expects the findings to be worse if the study were to be repeated today: instead of only one plant, there are now two. Additionally, “the worst thing is that the second plant’s smokestacks are shorter. So they made the smokestack shorter and ran both plants together,” adds Makhlouf, “they promised electricity, instead, they electrocuted those living here with this poison emitted from the smokestacks.”
Beaino, Makhlouf, and the residents of Zouk Mikael attest that the new, shorter, smokestacks cause them more harm because they are closer in proximity and that the pollution is held in a more concentrated area- as opposed to the old, tall smokestacks which spread across a larger area.
“As a municipality, we requested an environmental impact study, yet it wasn’t done. When they started construction, we went to stop them and the person in charge claimed they had the right to start construction and subsequently apply for licenses to accelerate the works. Yet until today, no licenses have been applied for.” The municipality has filed a lawsuit over this dispute. “To us, as a municipality, the company is illegal,” says Beaino.
Jiyeh’s interim Head of Municipality, Wissam Hajj, confirmed he had not received an environmental impact study nor had he issued a license. “We did not and will not license the new plant.” He said. “We don’t want to issue a license because we want environmental safeguards, we don’t want to create something that’s polluted nor do we want to increase pollutants in town.”
According to Saliba, the kind of fuel used presents the biggest environmental disaster. It is the “biggest scandal: how were they allowed to burn grade B heavy fuel oil in these engines? Grade B heavy fuel oil is like sludge, it ruins engines, and emits a lot of heavy metals and sulfur. And then it becomes very difficult to go back and use natural gas.”
What about Alternative Energy?
Greenpeace’s study suggests that the Zouk plant can, in fact, discontinue its operations and be replaced with renewable energy. This would help to reduce debt and save money currently being spent on the energy sector. According to Rony Karam, CEO of the Lebanese Foundation for Renewable Energy, a study by the Lebanese Research Center found that in five years, Lebanon could achieve 30% renewable energy and 50% in 10 years, at a cost of $4-5 billion – the cost of covering Électricité du Liban’s deficit for three to four years. When asked why it funded a project running on fuel, EKF responded: “Lebanon was not ready for renewable energy in 2014. At the time, we focused on power plants that should use the latest and cleanest technologies in their chosen form of energy. Plants are built for double-fuel usage, in other words, they could be switched to natural gas, or maybe even biogas.”
“The world is full of injustice”, says Julien Jriessati. The developed countries are the most responsible for climate change – they have been growing at the expense of the climate for so long, but they are also the least vulnerable. Developing countries, on the other hand, are the least responsible and the most vulnerable. That’s why we often see global companies from developed countries coming to developing countries and contributing to the pollution there. There’s an undeniable level of hypocrisy.”